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A Poetry Handbook 1st Edition

122 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0156724005
ISBN-10: 0156724006
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Editorial Reviews Review

This slender guide by Mary Oliver deserves a place on the shelves of any budding poet. In clear, accessible prose, Oliver (winner of both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award for poetry) arms the reader with an understanding of the technical aspects of poetry writing. Her lessons on sound, line (length, meter, breaks), poetic forms (and lack thereof), tone, imagery, and revision are illustrated by a handful of wonderful poems (too bad Oliver was so modest as to not include her own). What could have been a dry account is infused throughout with Oliver's passion for her subject, which she describes as "a kind of possible love affair between something like the heart (that courageous but also shy factory of emotion) and the learned skills of the conscious mind." One comes away from this volume feeling both empowered and daunted. Writing poetry is good, hard work.

From Publishers Weekly

National Book Award winner Oliver ( New and Selected Poems ) delivers with uncommon concision and good sense that paradoxical thing: a prose guide to writing poetry. Her discussion may be of equal interest to poetry readers and beginning or experienced writers. She's neither a romantic nor a mechanic, but someone who has observed poems and their writing closely and who writes with unassuming authority about the work she and others do, interspersing history and analysis with exemplary poems (the poets include James Wright, William Carlos Williams, Elizabeth Bishop, Marianne Moore and Walt Whitman). Divided into short chapters on sound, the line, imagery, tone, received forms and free verse, the book also considers the need for revision (an Oliver poem typically passes through 40 or 50 drafts before it is done) and the pros and cons of writing workshops. And though her prose is wisely spare, a reader also falls gladly on signs of a poet: "Who knows anyway what it is, that wild, silky part of ourselves without which no poem can live?" or "Poems begin in experience, but poems are not in fact experience . . . they exist in order to be poems."
Copyright 1994 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 130 pages
  • Publisher: Mariner Books; 1 edition (August 15, 1994)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0156724006
  • ISBN-13: 978-0156724005
  • Product Dimensions: 5.3 x 0.4 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 6.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (122 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #10,006 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

A private person by nature, Mary Oliver has given very few interviews over the years. Instead, she prefers to let her work speak for itself. And speak it has, for the past five decades, to countless readers. The New York Times recently acknowledged Mary Oliver as "far and away, this country's best-selling poet." Born in a small town in Ohio, Oliver published her first book of poetry in 1963 at the age of 28; No Voyage and Other Poems, originally printed in the UK by Dent Press, was reissued in the United States in 1965 by Houghton Mifflin. Oliver has since published many works of poetry and prose. As a young woman, Oliver studied at Ohio State University and Vassar College, but took no degree. She lived for several years at the home of Edna St. Vincent Millay in upper New York state, companion to the poet's sister Norma Millay. It was there, in the late '50s, that she met photographer Molly Malone Cook. For more than forty years, Cook and Oliver made their home together, largely in Provincetown, Massachusetts, where they lived until Cook's death in 2005. Over the course of her long and illustrious career, Oliver has received numerous awards. Her fourth book, American Primitive, won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1984. She has also received the Shelley Memorial Award; a Guggenheim Fellowship; an American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters Achievement Award; the Christopher Award and the L.L. Winship/PEN New England Award for House of Light; the National Book Award for New and Selected Poems; a Lannan Foundation Literary Award; and the New England Booksellers Association Award for Literary Excellence. Oliver's essays have appeared in Best American Essays 1996, 1998, 2001; the Anchor Essay Annual 1998, as well as Orion, Onearth and other periodicals. Oliver was editor of Best American Essays 2009. Oliver's books on the craft of poetry, A Poetry Handbook and Rules for the Dance, are used widely in writing programs. She is an acclaimed reader and has read in practically every state as well as other countries. She has led workshops at various colleges and universities, and held residencies at Case Western Reserve University, Bucknell University, University of Cincinnati, and Sweet Briar College. From 1995, for five years, she held the Catharine Osgood Foster Chair for Distinguished Teaching at Bennington College. She has been awarded Honorary Doctorates from The Art Institute of Boston (1998), Dartmouth College (2007) and Tufts University (2008). Oliver currently lives in Provincetown, Massachusetts, the inspiration for much of her work.

Photo Credit: Rachel Giese Brown, 2009.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

61 of 61 people found the following review helpful By J. Finnerty on January 11, 2009
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Mary Oliver is a well-known, distinguished poet. Her book "A Poetry Handbook" was recommended to me by a professor from my current MFA Poetry program and it has been both a surprise, and a confirmation that poets themselves (not academics and critics) have the deepest insight into how to write a good poem. Oliver suggests that poetry is like a current ready to flow through you. It is not merely "an acquisition," a skill, or something outside yourself - but more a combination of punctuality in "showing up" to do the work, and an opening of the heart (or,as Oliver calls it: "that shy factory of the emotion.")

Each chapter addresses component parts of poetry writing: line, sound, diction, imagery, voice and more. Oliver's choice of poets: Whitman, Bishop, James Wright, Frost, Pound, are all strong choices, their poems providing supportive examples of her discussion of craft.

Most importantly, however, she provides the best piece of advise in her opening chapters: read, read, read poems. To be a good poet, you must read a range of poetry, spanning history and geography and style. And after that, Oliver provides the surprise (a heady permission I learned in my very early years of writing which has held fast through many moments of flagging confidence and motivation) "Imitate." We read, we imitate, and from this process we find our own voice and style. As Oliver tells us: "It demands finally, a thrust of our own imagination - a force, a new idea - to make sure that we don't merely copy, but inherit, and proceed from what we have learned."

Though beautifully simple and straightforward, I would not categorize this book as being for any particular level of writer: beginner, or accomplished. The beginner will learn well and happily, and the more accomplished writer will find again and again, much needed resonance for the continuing passion of writing poetry.
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164 of 184 people found the following review helpful By Michael J. Mazza HALL OF FAME on May 20, 2002
Format: Paperback
"A Poetry Handbook," by Mary Oliver, is a nonfiction prose text about the art of writing poetry. In the book Oliver, herself an excellent poet, gives a clear and painless introduction to some structural aspects of poetry. She defines many technical terms: alliteration, onomatopoeia, alexandrine, caesura, quatrain, persona, etc. She also discusses various poetic forms: sonnet, free verse, etc. Other topics addressed include imagery and diction. Throughout the book, Oliver illustrates her points with poetry by some of the greatest practitioners of the craft: Robert Frost, Walt Whitman, William Carlos Williams, Elizabeth Bishop, etc.
The book is aimed at both readers and writers of poetry. For the latter, Oliver reflects on such practical issues as revision and participation in poetry workshops. The book reflects Oliver's own philosophy of poetry. She stresses that poetry is a craft that requires work and discipline, and encourages the reader to think of poets as constituting a "tribe" that transcends all geographic and cultural boundaries.
The book is not without flaws. I found it quite Eurocentric; she never discusses the haiku, a Japanese verse form that has been embraced by many in the English-speaking world. Other non-Western forms are similarly neglected.
Some of her opinionated pronouncements also seem open to debate. She notes that a poem "gives pleasure through the authority and sweetness of the language," but I think some poems are effective conduits of rage or outrage and make use of unpleasant language to shake up the reader. Regarding the revision process, she notes that sometimes "it is simply best to throw a poem away" -- but, I ask, who is to make that decision?
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50 of 54 people found the following review helpful By on December 31, 1997
Format: Paperback
Mary Oliver's poetry itself can do some teaching on its own, but we can be grateful she's chosen to articulate the writing process so richly in this book. The book will almost certainly will wring some writing out of you; it will also inspire you to examine your work habits and technique. Oliver's intelligence shines through, and will make you a better reader of poetry. Small note on the previous review: Mary Oliver does, indeed, teach, at Bennington College currently. If you can't enroll there, this book is your next best choice.
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17 of 17 people found the following review helpful By Mark Rockwell on March 9, 2006
Format: Paperback
Say what you will about her poetry, Mary Oliver clearly understands the technical aspects of the craft and in this small tome she conveys them brilliantly. With a clear voice and plenty of examples drawn from the masters of poetry, Oliver is able to bring great insights to the beginner or amateur poetry writer.

It may be going just a bit far to say that Oliver's book is to poetry what Strunk & White's is to prose, but for the non-expert it feels awful close.
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12 of 12 people found the following review helpful By Anne D. McKee on July 6, 2009
Format: Paperback
Reading Mary Oliver's A Poetry Handbook feels a bit like settling down with the magazine Cook's Illustrated. The magazine is published by people who love growing, preparing and eating food and who love the traditions and history of cooking. An issue might contain articles explaining how the combination of baking soda and baking powder work in pancakes, or the chemical effects of salting eggs before or after scrambling them. Then there are recipes for dishes one might actually imagine cooking -pot roast, or blueberry pie. After reading Cook's Illustrated, I think, "I can do this," and I value more deeply the daily beauty of putting ingredients together in new and old ways.

Mary Oliver loves words like the Cook's Illustrated people love food. She loves the sounds of words, the rhythm of words, the combinations of words in poems. She loves the history of poetry, its forms and patterns. She shares this love with the reader, so that poets and readers of poetry walk away from her book thinking, "I can do this, maybe. Maybe if I work very hard, if I read poets, if I practice and imitate, as she suggests." Whether one writes or not, the reader leaves with a deeper appreciation of the ingredients and structure of poems. In this short volume Oliver explains how various meters work, how the sounds of words contribute to a poem, and how free verse is deeply connected to traditional forms. She lays out a feast, with well-chosen poems to illustrate her lessons and leaves us hungry for more. She could have included a more international menu, perhaps, but this slim volume stimulates the appetite and encourages the reader to put on an apron, choose ingredients with care, and begin to cook.
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